Conference on the Caribbean: Into the Briar Patch

During June 19-21, in Washington, DC, Caribbean leaders, academics, activists, entrepreneurs, and others will mingle with members of the US government, representatives of international and regional financial institutions, and others with an interest in the region (see link). There will be two side forums on private sector development and the Diaspora.

The Caribbean region has many issues to face. Whether politicians see the issues in the same way as their populations is not clear, but the democratic process will be a guide as elections come along later this year. To me there are several thorny problems that could derail the region’s vision for itself.

First, is the burr of intraregional trade. It has been clear for some time that each Caribbean nation does not view neutrally the arrival of investors from another country. I will cite just the recent reaction in Barbados to the proposed take over by Trinidad’s Neal and Massy of Barbados Shipping and Trading. Generally, people don’t see these moves as strengthening the region’s ability to compete in a broad international environment, but merely as the loss of an important national player to a foreign entity, and as such a bad thing. The economic and financial explanations of possible merits rarely sink into most people’s minds. It is little different, when we consider the movement of labour between the countries. The movement of skilled or other workers from the larger countries (Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica) is often seen negatively in the smaller countries such as Barbados. And these movements quickly get tinged with emotive and racist language, citing themes such as “invasions” and “aggressiveness”.  So, what future for regional intiatives such as CSME? There does not seem a readiness to share a common economic space, especially if it means an influx from poorer, more violent, and apparently less stable countries in the region.

Related to this is the prickly question of regional air travel. The region may not really be able to support its own stock of air operators. We have seen the demise of Caribbean Airlines. The merger of Liat-Caribbean Star is underway. Air Jamaica’s future has been called into question, not least by the recent selling of its Kingston-London route to Virgin Airways. The other problem is the high cost of travel within the region, with its related negative impact on tourism. Liat-Caribbean Star charges too much for travelling short distances within the region: the Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Vincent Vanderpool-Wallance, has recently called these high fares the “silent killer” of regional tourism. The fact that some of the shareholders (Antigua, Barbados, St. Vincent) in the regional airline also own their main airports, puts a contradictory twist to how to price for international travel, given that the airport investment needs to be recouped. St. Lucia’s government has recently announced that it will no longer finance Liat, and has contracted with American Airlines to provide services between St. Lucia and Barbados. A little friction between the governments over these moves will be no surprise!

A complex and growing issue is the relationship with China. This has the double dimension of which “China” countries decide to work with. Some Caribbean countries are for a “one China” policy and are building deeper relations with the People’s Republic (see Barbados’ PM’s recent visit to Beijing, for example). Others do not wish to follow that road and are deeping relations with Taiwan (see St. Lucia, for example). Some (like St. Lucia) seem to switch with a change of government (see article in Broad Street Journal). The People’s Republic of China has an interesting position at present. It is a member of the Caribbean Development Bank (see link), with its own Director and seat on the Board of Governors. It is becoming a major source of financing in the region, especially of prestige construction projects (such as stadiums and highways). The People’s Republic of China is taking a fast-extending role in the development of poorer countries worldwide (especially in Africa, where this help can also mean access to valuable primary commodities), and has the resources to fulfill this role. It has also become an important source of labour to the Caribbean to help with construction projects. But this latter aspect is coming at a price as local opinion quickly turns hostile when it seems that local labour is being pushed to the side (whether due to proper procedure of suspected underhand dealings). Whether local labour has the skills to compete well against Chinese workers, it is often hard to compete with Chinese companies on price: anecdotal stories of Chinese workers getting US10 a day and having to rumage around to find food and live in what are seen as squalid conditions do nothing to enhance the image of the Chinese worker. The presence of Chinese workers and contractors is not a singular problem in the Caribbean, but part of the emerging impact that the People’s Republic is having on economic developments. It is becoming the dominant international force. Mix this with the pre-existing sense of invasion from foreigners that some are feeling and one does not have to look far to see an unhappy road ahead if somehow the apparent large influx of Chinese workers is not controlled, especially in the smaller islands.

The politicians and others will have more than these issues to think and talk about and I will try to see if some of these reflections can be quickly incorporated into this blog.

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One response to “Conference on the Caribbean: Into the Briar Patch

  1. experienceaurie

    that is so funny that i found this. my mom is on her way down there on a train ride this morning. she is a member of an interest group to help stabilize some of the social service issues that plague the caribbean. i will certainly listen to her notes and hopefully get something down on my blog about it. i’ll stay tuned for any follow up stories you may have on this very important topic. this is wonderful.

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